Last night (the Seventh of Cheshvan) in Israel we began to include the prayer for rain “VeTen tal Umatar Livracha”, “and grant rain and dew for a blessing” in the Birkhat haShanim blessing of the Shmoneh Esrei.
Those outside of the Land of Israel only begin to recite the prayer for rain sixty days after the fall season begins (December 5).
Why is there a difference?
Originally, the sixty day rule was for the Jews who lived in Bavel (Babylonia) which at the time was considered the Golah (diaspora) where rain was only needed sixty days after the fall season began. In the Middle Ages, the date for the Golah was extended to Europe and North Africa even though the time of year where rain is needed varies by the country. The exception was Provence and maybe a few other places which followed the custom of the Land of Israel.
The Rosh (Rabeinu Asher ben Yechiel 1259-1327, Germany, Spain) taught in his commentary on the Talmud, Taanit 12b: I am surprised that we follow the Babylonian practice in this regard. While our Talmud is Babylonian, the matter (of praying for rain) depends upon the Land of Israel. Why should we not follow their custom? Even if Babylonia has abundant water and does not need rain, other countries need rain in Cheshvan so why delay the prayer until the 60th day of the season? Why should we not follow the ruling of the Mishnah? In Provence I have seen that they pray for rain beginning with Cheshvan and I heartily approve!
The Tur, Rabeinu Asher’s son did not accept his opinion and those in the Golah continued to follow the sixty day rule.
Dr. Moshe Sokolow in his article “VeTen Tal U-Matar, What is So Holy about the 4th (or 5th or 6th) of December? Some Insights into the Interplay between the Calendar and the Liturgy”, points out that in 1637, in the Portuguese colony of Recife, in Brazil, one of the first religious problems was reckoning the proper time to say VeTen Tal U-Matar Lvracha. On the one hand they were all accustomed to following the Babylonian custom, which had won out, time and again, over all attempts — such as that of R. Asher — to modify it in accordance with local conditions. On the other hand was the overwhelming illogic of praying for rain during Brazil’s summer, and forgoing the prayer precisely when rain was needed, just because the tradition was founded in another era and a different hemisphere! Congregation Zur Yisrael raised this question in a letter to Rabbi Chaim Shabbetai of Salonica, whose answer set the precedent by which most of the Jews of South America and Australia abide to this very day. Basing himself upon the opinions of Rambam and taking the responsum of Rabeinu Asher into consideration, Rabbi Shabbetai ruled that since during the months of Nisan through Tishrei prayers for rain may be recited only in Shome’a Tefillah as individuals and since one should not have to pray for rain at a time in which it would be harmful for him, the Jews of Brazil should:
Never say Viten Tal U-Matar in Birkhat haShanim;
Never even say Mashiv haRu’ah U’Morid haGeshem (He makes the wind blow and He makes the rain fall)
During their winter they were entitled to say ViTen Tal U-Matar in Shome’a Tefillah if the need arose.
In Israel we started praying for rain during the Maariv service and it has been raining on and off all of last night and today.
As we watched the rain pour down on our way home from school today, my son Yehuda declared: “It is now official, the winter season has officially begun.”